December 2016

From the December Issue:

Genese Grill, Opinion

Michael Long, The Juggernaut that Precast Microville and the Citizens who Remembered Democracy

Genevieve Jacobs, Letters

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Excerpts from Mold Mannie Festo Against Rationalism in Architecture 

Fay Webern, Lavanburg Homes

Louis Mannie Lionni, What do we do Now? 

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Editor’s note: The Coalition for a Livable City is a Burlington grass roots group fighting for a more robust participatory democracy and against private-public partnerships that derail citizen determination of their future. The following is a narrative of the Coalition’s most recent battle to bring due diligence and proper democratic process to the city’s attempt to radically alter the downtown zoning laws for the profit of one developer. The City Council voted in May 2016 to approve a Pre-Development agreement that ensured a massive zoning change, invalidating the subsequent process of public evaluation of the zoning change. – G.G.

The Coalition for a Livable City (CLC) is neither creaky nor well-oiled because it’s not at all a machine―but more like the symbiotic human-scaled city where an eclectic assemblage of diverse and uncertain vintage and provenance comes together and works magically.  What coalesces the Coalition is the city government chanting build baby build like Sarah Palin in more innocent days was wont to incant drill baby drill.  It’s a barren idea similar to kill baby kill, and that’s what it does to the magic―kills it―lays waste the town. The Coalition is impelled to counter that dark force with observation, argument, art, and whimsy.  

The Pre-Development Agreement, really the cast-in-stone agreement on 14 stories with no strings attached, was the startling observation that launched the CLC mall-wars-art-tech intercept to prevent the red-Jello mothership from landing atop our maligned mall. The developer, Don Sinex, had plied Burlington’s mayor and city council with Kool Aid. They drank and signed in red to raise the maximum building height of the low-lying mall neighborhood a startling 95 feet above the 65 feet that was historically appropriate and permitted. The fateful concurrent presidential contest offered the convergence of micro and macro socio-political concerns in the noble but unheralded battle cry: No Mall –No Wall.

If that mall is so shabby, how is a prescriptive, outdated, oversized, wedding-cake-in-concrete an improvement? A former planner said it looked like a mothership from outer space and wondered why it was not only so tall, but oh so ugly too? In answer, she offered that the big city developers often send the B-team out here, thinking we won’t know the difference in the hinterlands, 296 miles out of Times Square.

The stacked shoe boxes at an early city council meeting said it all to any who would look or listen. But the refrain, played over and over past tolerance, is that there is already a wall around the fourteen-story mall and around the ten councilors who pre-agreed to it. They were implacable, inured to reconsideration, hunkered and bunkered down in pre-agreement.   Some dozed, some twittered, some bought Red Sox tickets on-line, and some robotically thanked the public for their comments without seeming even to know what was said. 

This was fishy.  The water and temperature rose in Contois Audiquarium. The fish swam clockwise and colorful about the periphery, unified and synchronized in fin-driven motion and emotion. People spoke, the fish expressed, a sardine flopped on the mayor’s desk, the Council tried only to care less: reason, factual analysis, PlanBTV, due diligence, planning commission approval, vetting, democracy―all part of the annoyance to be endured when marching in a charade―the vaunted sacrifice of public servants selflessly devoted to the community.  

In their 9-1 vote for the Pre-Development Agreement, the Council established that all but Max Tracy were representing the developer first and their constituencies only technically.  They had agreed to zoning that would conform to the project already, so the subsequent comments and discussion―required by the legislative process―could only be a sham to verify these changes retroactively and, almost as an afterthought, legally too.  The real decisions had been made months before and glossed over as nothing more than a decision to keep talking, to keep an open mind, to look forward ever so much to discuss and to refine.  

This did not pass for democracy with the CLC.  They continued to protest the 14-story mall, though at the Council they were talking to the wall.  They spoke out too at press conferences, one with 14-story balloons, and the press took some note, but largely signed onto the Miroville party line: any opposition came from a “vocal minority”.  Though the CLC reveled in its creative opposition to a lockstep city hall, the city’s dangerous, dull approach in the guise of unassailable PROGRESS proved sufficiently persuasive and seemed innocuous enough to the so-called silent (bare) majority.  Thirty or forty grand doesn’t even register on the national dollar scale, but in a little town, against a grass-roots opposition, the city’s serial postcards featuring flowery claims and smiling faces in simple-but-incomplete message form prevailed.  

The CLC did well enough to become credible and carry the struggle forward, but retrospect suggests a little more push from a slightly different angle would have stymied the smug, trash-talking juggernaut that pre-cast Miroville on the very day the other Donald gained free rein to eviscerate democracy. These latter dangers are of a different order, but of the same nature, and equally clear and present.

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